The world Shirley Jackson creates in her collection of short stories is a strange and haunting one. While her stories seem mundane on one level, there's something unsettling, just out of sight. The concerns and issues Jackson tackles are contemporary to the time she wrote them, the 1940s, but they are also relevant to us today. Race, gender, identity, assumptions we make about people, right and wrong, the question of whether to keep or break with tradition. These issues are all explored in sometimes comical, sometimes unusual, and sometimes frightening fashion.
It's about impossible to talk about all 26 stories in one blog post, and some are more worthwhile than others, but I'll try my best. "Like Mother Used to Make" is one of the few stories with a male protagonist. This is a story about identity switch. A man living on his own in an apartment likes to keep everything very neat and tidy. The woman who lives across from him, on the other hand, is a slob. He has a key to her place, and the reason becomes apparent by the end. She comes over and eats dinner with him and seems polite, but then a stranger knocks, a guest of hers, and this is where the identity swap happens. She pretends it's her place, and the man, though upset, does not object and goes to her apartment. Jackson's characters adapt to conditions rather than fight them, and this is true of human nature in a lot of ways. In "Trial by Combat," where an older woman steals trinkets from a younger woman's apartment, the younger woman backs off from confrontation when she finally has her chance. Jackson's goal is not to explain why people do this, but to merely show it and allow her readers to ask questions.
Another issue Jackson explores is assumptions people make about others. The bizarre story, "The Daemon Lover," tests the readers assumptions about its heroine. A woman waits for a man she plans to marry that day, only he doesn't show up. When she looks for him, her neighbors all seem to have seen him, but end up leading her on a wild goose chase. She never finds him, and the reader is left wondering whether or not she imagined this man. Character assumptions are tested in "Of Course," when a woman excited to meet her new neighbors, learns the awful truth once she begins talking with them. More comically, a boy takes advantage of his parents' assumptions in "Charles," one of Jackson's best.
Several of Jackson's stories take a look at 1940s racism, showing the powerful danger of not discussing race. In "After You, My Dear Alphonse," Mrs. Wilson's son brings home a friend, a black boy, and she makes many statements to and about him that reveal her assumptions about him because of the color of his skin. Condescendingly, Mrs. Wilson offers the boy food and extra clothing, and becomes offended when he boy declines. She also wonders whether his parents work, surprised that his mother is a stay-at-home mom like herself. The two boys are oblivious to Mrs. Wilson's racism, seeing her behavior merely as one of the strange peculiarities of a mother. In "Flower Garden," a woman new to the neighborhood asks a poor black boy on the outskirts of the neighborhood whether he would like to help with her flower garden for some money. This goes against the advice of her new friend, Mrs. Winning, and when the boy's father comes to help and she accepts, she finds herself alienated from the rest of the neighborhood. Mrs. Winning, who had become best friends with the new neighbor, goes out of her way to avoid her. A power silence from the community is what eventually forces the new neighbor to move, and it's also what ensures the blacks, those who aren't part of "normal" society, remain on the outskirts of society.
The brunt of these societal norms seem to fall on the women. In "The Renegade," Mrs. Walpole, a homemaker whose schedule revolves around those of her children and her husband, finds herself in a frightening situation regarding her dog. News spreads around the neighborhood that Mrs. Walpole's dog has killed some of her neighbor's chickens, and everyone is of the opinion that the dog must be put down. She asks if anything can be done, and everyone has their own story of how you might stop a chicken-killing dog, and each one is more horrendously brutal than the last. Besides, none are guaranteed to work. And when her kids begin telling her methods even more horrendous than the rest, Mrs. Walpole feels alone in her compassion for her dog. Once the neighborhood has made a decision, it get its way, at the expense of the woman.
Jackson's masterpiece, "The Lottery," portrays a cruel tradition that has gone on far too long. Though many members of the town seem unhappy with it, it still persists under irrational arguments. One man argues that if the Lottery is stopped, then what's to stop men from working, though this has absolutely nothing to do with the Lottery's purpose. Sadly, this kind of argumentation persists in all wakes of society, and this story is relevant to all times. I'm sure everyone has parents or knows people who continue on with a tradition only because their parents before them did it. When kids complain, they are merely shushed and their reasons aren't heard. Though these traditions aren't as harsh as the one in "The Lottery," Jackson effectively shows the dangers of doing something simply because it's been done for generations.
Not all of the stories in this collection are great, though most are. Some are puzzling, sometimes in good ways, but sometimes not. The nice thing about it is the variety. Jackson experiments with style now and then. "My Life with R.H. Macy" has a sci-fi feel to it, in its critique of corporations and their treatment of employees. "The Tooth" has a sort of gothic, psychedelic feel to it in its critique of the treatment of patients by doctors. Anyone interested in women's lit should give Shirley Jackson a read, if you haven't already. Those interested in a look at 1940s American life, from an interesting perspective, should also give her a read. At the very least, seek out these three stories and read them: "The Lottery," "After You, My Dear Alphonse," and "Charles." They represent some of her best work, and they are some of the best short fiction in American literature.